What Does Meditation Do For The Brain? The 1 Big Answer (+ All The Details)

The effect of meditation on each area of your brain

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Meditation, a timeless tradition with roots in various cultures and spiritual disciplines, has garnered increasing attention in contemporary scientific circles.

Beyond its spiritual and philosophical dimensions, researchers are beginning to unpack the mysteries of how meditation affects the brain, developing a deeper understanding of the mind-body connection.

From synaptic plasticity to neurotransmitter dynamics, the evolving field of neuroscience is shedding light on how meditation molds the brain’s architecture.

a figure meditating against a brain background

What Is Meditation?

At its essence, meditation is a practice that invites individuals to embark on a journey of self-discovery and inner exploration.

Rooted in ancient traditions, meditation takes myriad forms, each offering a unique pathway to cultivate mindfulness, awareness, and a deeper connection with the self.

Meditation is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor; rather, it encompasses a diverse range of techniques, from focused breathwork and guided visualization to mindfulness and transcendental practices.

At its center, meditation involves the intentional redirection of attention, allowing individuals to cultivate a heightened state of present-moment awareness.

Whether seated in quiet contemplation, engaged in mindful movement, or practicing loving-kindness, the common thread in meditation is the journey inward.

It is a conscious and deliberate act of turning attention away from external stimuli to explore the richness of the inner landscape.

The Various Areas Of The Brain & How They Relate To Meditation

To get a better understanding of what does meditation do for the brain, it may help you to understand the intricate landscape of various regions of the brain and their incredible interplay during contemplative practices.

Our brain orchestrates a whole range of responses when engaged in meditation training.

1. Prefrontal cortex: the seat of executive functions

At the forefront of meditation is the prefrontal cortex, a hub for executive functions like decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation.

Meditation, particularly mindfulness practices, has been associated with enhanced brain activity and connectivity in this region, developing a heightened sense of self-awareness and cognitive control.

2. Amygdala: the emotional sentinel

The amygdala is a nucleus crucial for processing fear, fight or flight, emotions, and motivation.

Meditation, with its stress-reducing qualities, has been found to modulate amygdala activity, providing a neurological basis for the calming effect that practitioners often experience. This alteration in emotional processing contributes to a more balanced emotional state.

3. Hippocampus: navigating memory and learning

The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure nestled deep within the brain, plays a pivotal role in memory consolidation and learning.

Meditation has been linked to structural changes in the hippocampus, suggesting a potential avenue for cognitive enhancements, particularly in memory-related functions.

a colourful brain

4. Insula: bridging mind and body awareness

The insula, the part of the brain situated at the intersection of sensory and emotional processing, takes center stage in the integration of mind-body awareness during meditation.

Practices that emphasize mindful attention to bodily sensations activate the insula, building a heightened awareness of the present moment and the interconnectedness of mental and physical experiences.

5. Default Mode Network (DMN): quieting the mental chatter

The DMN, associated with self-referential thoughts and mind-wandering, undergoes significant shifts during meditation.

Practices like mindfulness disrupt the default mode, leading to a quieter mind and a reduced tendency for the incessant mental chatter that often characterizes our daily lives.

6. Thalamus: sensory perception

Serving as the brain’s relay station for sensory information, the thalamus plays a crucial role in the modulation of attention.

Meditation practices, by developing heightened attentional control, influence the thalamus, shaping the way the mind processes and filters sensory stimuli.

What Does Meditation Do For The Brain? the One Big Answer


Neuroplasticity, often referred to as the brain’s ability to reorganize itself in response to experience, forms the foundation for understanding how meditation instigates adaptive changes in our neural architecture.

Neuroplasticity challenges the once-prevailing belief that the brain’s structure is fixed and immutable.

Instead, it shows the brain’s dynamic nature, capable of reshaping its connections and pathways based on experiences and intentional practices.

Importantly, we find that our meditation practices serves as a catalyst for leveraging neuroplasticity.

Through consistent and intentional mental exercises, meditation prompts the brain to undergo adaptive changes, rewiring its circuitry in response to the focused attention, mindfulness, and awareness cultivated during practice.

Research has illuminated the structural alterations occurring within the brain as a result of regular meditation.

Studies indicate increases in gray matter density, particularly in regions associated with self-awareness, compassion, and cognitive functions. These changes suggest that meditation induces neuroplasticity-driven modifications in brain structure.

At the microscopic level, meditation contributes to synaptic plasticity – the adaptive changes in the strength and efficiency of synaptic connections between neurons.

This phenomenon is fundamental to learning and memory, emphasizing the role of meditation in fine-tuning the brain’s synaptic landscape for optimal cognitive function.

Neuroplasticity, as influenced by meditation, has also been associated with neurogenesis – the generation of new neurons.

While the extent of neurogenesis in the adult human brain is still debated, emerging evidence1 eocinstitute.org. (n.d.). Neurogenesis: How Meditation Increases Brain Cells – EOC Institute. [online] Available at: https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/the-neurogenesis-guide-how-meditation-changes-the-adult-brain/. suggests that meditation may play a role in promoting the birth of new neurons, particularly in brain regions linked to learning and memory.


5 Cognitive Benefits Of Meditation Practice

1. Sharper focus and enhanced attention

Meditation serves as a training ground for the mind, honing the ability to sustain attention, improve mental health, and cultivate a heightened state of awareness.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, encourages practitioners to anchor their attention to the present moment, gradually strengthening the neural circuits associated with sustained focus.

Through this intentional practice, some scientific studies2 Lardone, A., Liparoti, M., Sorrentino, P., Rucco, R., Jacini, F., Polverino, A., Minino, R., Pesoli, M., Baselice, F., Sorriso, A., Ferraioli, G., Sorrentino, G. and Mandolesi, L. (2018). Mindfulness Meditation Is Related to Long-Lasting Changes in Hippocampal Functional Topology during Resting State: A Magnetoencephalography Study. Neural Plasticity, [online] 2018, pp.1–9. doi:https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/5340717. report improvements in concentration, clarity, and the ability to navigate distractions with greater ease.

2. Improved memory and cognitive resilience

Studies suggest that regular meditation, especially types of meditation emphasizing mindfulness and loving-kindness, may contribute to structural changes in the hippocampus—a region integral to memory consolidation.

Additionally, the cultivation of present-moment awareness in a meditative state builds cognitive resilience, allowing individuals to approach challenges with a clearer and more adaptable mindset.

3. Improved creativity

Beyond its effects on attention and memory, meditation techniques have been linked to the enhancement of creative thinking. This study3 Ding, X., Tang, Y.-Y., Tang, R. and Posner, M.I. (2014). Improving creativity performance by short-term meditation. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 10(1), p.9. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/1744-9081-10-9. showed 30 minutes of meditation a day increased participants’ creativity performance in divergent thinking and emotional regulation.

By quieting the mind’s chatter and nurturing a state of mental receptivity, meditation creates fertile ground for new ideas and insights to emerge.

The uncluttered mental space cultivated through meditation allows individuals to tap into their creative reservoirs, often leading to increased problem-solving abilities and a fresh perspective on challenges.

a brain with colourful splats on it

4. Stress reduction

Meditation is renowned for its stress-reducing effects, and this extends to physiological changes within the brain.

The practice has been linked to a reduction in cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress. One study even found a 50% reduction in cortisol levels in those who meditated!

This not only contributes to a sense of calm but also promotes overall brain health.

5. Improved sleep

Likely linking to the previous point, the effects of meditation also include a significantly improved sleep quality4 Rusch, H.L., Rosario, M., Levison, L.M., Olivera, A., Livingston, W.S., Wu, T. and Gill, J.M. (2019). The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, [online] 1445(1), pp.5–16. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13996.. Enhanced sleep contributes to optimal brain function, memory consolidation, and emotional well-being.

8 Tips For Beginner Meditators

  1. Start small and build consistency:
    • The brain thrives on routine, and meditation is no exception.
    • Begin with short sessions, perhaps just a few minutes, and gradually extend the duration as your comfort and familiarity with the practice grow.
    • Consistency is key, as regularity in meditation has been associated with more profound neurological changes over time.
  2. Patience and gentleness:
    • Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, takes time. Be patient with yourself and approach meditation with a gentle mindset.
    • The brain responds positively to a nurturing and non-judgmental attitude, allowing for a more open and adaptable neurobiological response to the practice.
  3. Choose a technique that resonates:
    • There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation.
    • Experiment with different techniques—whether it’s mindfulness, loving-kindness, or breath awareness—and choose the one that resonates with you.
    • The brain’s response to meditation is influenced by personal preferences, so finding a method that aligns with your inclinations enhances the likelihood of sustained engagement.
  4. Acknowledge and embrace challenges:
    • It’s natural for the mind to wander during meditation, and beginners often encounter challenges in maintaining focus.
    • Instead of viewing distractions as obstacles, consider them as opportunities for growth.
    • Acknowledging the wandering mind with kindness and redirecting your focus is a fundamental aspect of the learning process that engages the brain in self-regulation.
  5. Create a comfortable environment:
    • The brain is sensitive to its surroundings, and creating a conducive environment can enhance the meditation experience.
    • Choose a quiet and comfortable space, free from unnecessary distractions. Consider dim lighting, comfortable seating, and perhaps soothing background sounds to facilitate a relaxed state of mind.
  6. Incorporate mind-body awareness:
    • Engage not only the mind but also the body in your meditation practice. Pay attention to physical sensations, breath patterns, and the overall sense of embodiment.
    • This approach engages different brain regions, promoting a more integrated and balanced experience.
  7. Track your progress:
    • The brain responds positively to a sense of accomplishment. Consider keeping a meditation journal to track your progress and reflect on your experiences.
    • Celebrate small milestones, as the brain’s reward system is activated by positive reinforcement, fostering a deeper connection to the practice.
  8. Seek guidance and community:
    • Joining a meditation group or seeking guidance from experienced practitioners can provide valuable support and encouragement.
    • Social connections and shared experiences not only enhance motivation but also stimulate brain regions associated with empathy and social bonding.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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